In his already historic television speech on 16 March 2020, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte outlined the far-reaching expectations and consequences of the Corona virus. By now, it is clear that this virus not only infects our own health but also the basic structures of society. In our part of the world, Western Europe, we sometimes seem immune to the disastrous events that occur more often elsewhere. This does not appear to be the case at present. The resilience of individuals and of society as a whole will be put to the test in the coming months, and possibly years. But that same resilience will eventually lead to innovation in issues we have been stuck with for a very long time — and thus to progress.
Three aspects of resilience
Resilience is not an abstract concept. It has three aspects. Firstly, the ability of humans and society to anticipate a “shock” or wide-ranging developments. So, knowing and estimating what is coming and adjusting to it. Certain developments take place gradually. Consider the ageing of society, which leads to higher spending on care – obliging us to work a little longer to safeguard our prosperity.
Predicting high-impact events is obviously less easy. Think of the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001, and similar attacks in Europe a number of years later. Nor did we expect the major economic crisis from 2008 to 2014. In many areas, however, we are making progress with data science enabling us to give early warnings (early warning systems) in case of storms and hurricanes that occur all over the world. So, resilience in this aspect is mainly a question of more and better knowledge. This also applies to individuals. If you know in time that your job or profession is disappearing or changing, you can retrain for another job to avoid unemployment.
Secondly, resilience entails that we need to recover from a shock or major event and return to normal. This now applies to many people who are ill and suffer from a high fever. Returning to normal body temperature is then the goal. For society, we can draw a parallel. Many companies, organisations, and people who are no longer able to do their normal work now hope that it will be possible to resume their work within the foreseeable future. This also requires resilience: financially, socially, and mentally.
Our economic growth is likely to slow down significantly in the coming period, and the goal is to return to normal growth at some point. To cushion this economic and social shock, a large number of measures are currently being taken by the government, provinces, various labour market agencies. This also applies to the social aspect, which was also pointed out by Prime Minister Rutte. We have to look out for each other and take care of each other. Individual people do not always have sufficient resilience. In the Netherlands and similar countries, we are privileged to have a lot of resources at our disposal, and that also means that we have to contribute to the recovery in other countries where that is not the case, both in Europe and worldwide.
The third component of resilience, renewing, is seen less often. Resilience is certainly not just a return to the old state. On the contrary, renewing enables humans and society to become stronger and better. That is perhaps the greatest challenge. In these enormously difficult and uncertain times, this is nevertheless the most appealing perspective. At the moment, we appear to be able to step over all kinds of hick-ups in no time at all, for example in discussions in which we constantly got stuck. Observe how we now also support flexible workers and the self-employed to stay at work or not be reduced to poverty. In the Netherlands, we have been arguing for twenty years about the contrast between flexible work and permanent contracts, and about the question of what to do with the self-employed. Now we are taking action.
Next to that, we are making major leaps in digitalization, something that was also difficult in the Netherlands. Necessity makes us to learn quickly, how to teach students online, as well as continuing working together, productively and efficiently outside the fixed workplace. In this way, our knowledge becomes much broader, more accessible, and less dependent on time and place.
Strong government and public sectors
This crisis also offers us individual, social, and economic reflection—back to basics. We are now going to realise once again that the market is a very effective way of organizing matters in a society, but that we cannot do without a strong government and public sector. We put the contradictions of society into perspective and, hopefully, we will hold on to that resilience. Developing more resilience is a matter of more knowledge and more cooperation amongst people, companies, organizations, education, and governments at all levels. Together we can draw up, implement, research, and maintain the agenda of a resilient and meaningful society. This crisis, in which both health and the economy are affected, is unprecedented, but above all let’s use the opportunities we have to emerge from it better and stronger.
This essay is a collaborative effort between Ton Wilthagen, NIAS-NSVP Fellow and Professor Labour Market at Tilburg University and Paulien Bongers, Director of Science of the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research, component ‘Healthy Living’. Wilthagen and Bongers are driving forces behind the theme ‘Resilient Society’ within both Tilburg University an the National Science Agenda. This article was originally published in Brabants Dagblad during the first week of the ‘intelligent-lockdown’ (19 March 2020).